To close the circle, products and systems must not only be designed differently, but infrastructures and services must also be offered. We present best practice examples for circular design from fashion, electrical engineering and architecture.

By Martina Metzner.

If we look at the many discourses and publications, it seems: We are on the direct path to a Circular Economy. But the concrete implementation is still proceeding far too slowly to avoid the impending environmental collapse. The turnaround will not be achieved through political frameworks alone – it needs a commitment from society as a whole, an all-encompassing cultural change. But there is hope: more and more people are working on this change. Generation Greta is leading the way. And the older generation is becoming “grandchild-friendly”. However, there is no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all approach to managing and shaping in a circular way. Everyone is breaking new ground.

Circular Design leuchtet ein: Die Pacific LED-Serie bietet Philips als „Circular Lighting” zur Miete an
Circular Design leuchtet ein: Die Pacific LED-Serie bietet Philips als „Circular Lighting” zur Miete an. Bild: Philips Ligthing

In many sectors, pioneers are setting out on the path: initiatives and start-ups that focus holistically on circular design, medium-sized companies that have always operated responsibly, and large companies that naturally find it more difficult to redesign their linear supply chains that have been built up over years. To close the biological or technical loop, products and systems must not only be designed differently, but infrastructures and services must also be offered. To do this, one distinguishes between the vertical circular economy system, in which materials and products flow directly back to the manufacturer. Even better, says Christoph Soukup of the Steinbeis Circular Economy Consulting Centre in Stuttgart, are area-wide circular systems in which diverse actors are involved, which has significantly more positive environmental effects. Just think of the success story of the German returnable deposit bottle system, exemplified by Günter Kupetz’s pearl bottle. Standard designs are the be-all and end-all here – but of course they also stand in the way of the much-loved individualisation.

Pre-loved is a fashion trend

Circulose bietet Baumwolle aus recylten Kleidungsstücken wie Jeans an
Circulose bietet Baumwolle aus recylten Kleidungsstücken wie Jeans an. Bild: Alexander Donka für Renewcell

The fashion industry was faced with circular design relatively early, as the sector is a seismograph of social currents. For some years now, it has been in a deep crisis. Many consumers no longer want to tolerate the inhumane working conditions, environmental pollution and throwaway mentality. For about ten years, people have been turning to textile recycling, such as recycled PET from Econyl or, more recently, recycled cotton from Circulose. But recycling materials is not the most effective way to operate in a circular economy. Recycling is often downcycling, and the energy input is relatively high. Pre-loved is the better alternative: many major labels and retailers are now entering the second-hand business with reuse and recycling.

“Whether in private life or in a company – the question of effectiveness or productivity is no longer as important as the question of meaningfulness,” says Svenja Bickert-Appleby. With her agency New Order Design, the “activist entrepreneur” and her team from Wiesbaden advise companies on innovation and design issues in circular design. She has also founded a digital exchange platform, Kreiskraft, and is currently working on a digital exchange for post-production and dead-stock textiles. With her circular fashion label “Solostücke”, she is testing how circular design works in real life. For her collection, the designer uses leftover roll fabrics from textile productions, but also discarded clothing. The clothes are sewn in a small sewing shop in Chemnitz. The “Solostücke” can also be returned or repaired. The impact of Solostücke and similar labels is of course manageable at first. But they are relevant impulse generators.

Für die zirkuläre Fashionlinie Solostücke werden Stoffe aus Überproduktionen verwendet.
Für die zirkuläre Fashionlinie Solostücke werden Stoffe aus Überproduktionen verwendet. Bild: Solostücke

Modular Smartphones live longer

Circular Design für alle: Angeleitet von Videotutorials kann man das modular gestaltete Shift Phone selbst reparieren und erweitern
Angeleitet von Videotutorials kann man das modular gestaltete Shift Phone selbst reparieren und erweitern. Bild: SHIFT GmbH

In the field of electronic devices, too, rapidly changing trends and innovations are the reason for growing mountains of waste. Smartphones are at the forefront of this development. According to the Öko-Institut für angewandte Ökologie (Institute for Applied Ecology) in Germany, smartphones, which are made of rare earths as well as metals, glass and plastic, are used for an average of just 2.5 years. However, when consumers want to use their smartphones for longer, they often fail, because suddenly they are no longer compatible with new updates or memory expansions. In order to increase the lifespan and useful life of a smartphone, business models such as repair, reuse or refurbishment are an option.

In addition to the dynamically growing market of used smartphones, there are also more and more devices that are designed to be durable from the outset. For example, the Shift Phone, which, similar to the Fairphone from the Netherlands, consists of modular components and can be easily repaired or upgraded. If the product becomes irreparable at some point, you can send it in and get a partial refund of the purchase price. As with many other circular business models, the focus is not on the sale, but on the entire product use and life cycle phase. Another concept of the circular economy is that companies offer “Product as a Service”, here the product remains the property of the provider and goes back to him after use. One of the pioneers of this model is Philips, which has been renting out light for a fee since 2016, which also includes maintenance. This concept is expected to grow significantly in the coming years alongside the sharing model, in which users share objects.

Communication becomes circular

“What does digital service design have to do with the Circular Economy?” Peter Post from Scholz & Volkmer asked himself. The designer quickly realised: A lot! Circular design creates a new relationship between consumers and products or companies: When consumers borrow the product, when they have to have it repaired, when they return it because it has had its day. How do you make this new usage behaviour, this new relationship attractive, if you also have to pay for it? asks the team of the agency for digital brand management with a focus on sustainability, which also organises the annual see conference. Post speaks of “circular communication” and “circular experience design”. And says: “Even if products are connected through Internet-of-Things, communication with customers and service design will have a high priority in a Circular Economy.”

Building on in architecture

Circular Design in der Architektur: Das Moringa Wohngebäude in Hamburg wird nach Cradle to Cradle-Prinzipien mit rezyklierbaren Materialien und flexiblen Grundrissen gebaut
Im Circular Design zuhause: Das Moringa Wohngebäude in Hamburg wird nach Cradle to Cradle-Prinzipien mit rezyklierbaren Materialien und flexiblen Grundrissen gebaut. Rendering: Moringa GmbH

The construction industry is also in the midst of transformation. It is responsible for the world’s greatest hunger for energy and materials and produces the most lavish amounts of waste. It is currently feeling the brunt of this. For example, building materials such as wood or sand (for concrete) are becoming scarce and enormously more expensive. This in turn contributes to the rise in housing rents. A vicious circle. Under the hashtag #Bauscham, the voices of planners are increasing, above all those of the Architects for Future initiative, who are calling for more attention to be paid to existing buildings rather than building new ones. For architects, this means rethinking. Only a few like Arno Brandlhuber, Eike Roswag-Klinge or Insitu show that the new culture of conversion can also be an exciting task in terms of design.

Of course, it won’t work completely without new construction. But a lot has to change here, too. “We are the main cause of the climate crisis and the scarcity of resources,” says Vanja Schneider, who is developing the first residential building based on the Cradle to Cradle principle together with Landmarken AG in Hamburg. “If I want to build a building today, I would like to have an answer for taking back the products and materials used,” says Schneider. “Badass”, together with the architects from Kadawittfeld, they pay attention to the CO2 balance of the building during the development of “Moringa”. 70 percent of the structural components and materials are recyclable, emphasises the Moringa maker. The reinforced concrete skeleton construction also supports the concept of recyclability: only the staircase cores and the ceilings are load-bearing, so that everything from the outer wall to the entire interior can be flexibly and easily converted. Recycled or eco-concrete is used for the concrete. In the latter case, the aggregates are CO2-reduced.

At the moment, the focus is on lighthouse projects such as The Cradle in Düsseldorf, Moringa in Hamburg or the Cityförster recycling house in Hanover, but it will take a while before this becomes widespread in building processes, says Johannes Stiglmair of TRNSFRM, which is currently working with the collaborators and LXSY Architects on the IMPACT HUB BERLIN X CRCLR HOUSE in Berlin according to circular principles. The vision of the spokesperson of the Building & Architecture Alliance of the NGO Cradle to Cradle: “We want to construct buildings and cities in such a way that they are not only climate-neutral, but also have a positive impact on the environment”.

Für den Innenausbau des CRCLR House in Berlin verwenden LXSY Architekten teilweise gebrauchte Materialien.
Für den Innenausbau des IMPACT HUB BERLIN X CRCLR HOUSE in Berlin verwenden LXSY Architekten teilweise gebrauchte Materialien. Rendering: LXSY Architekten

Mehr auf ndion

Read the prelude to our series on the circular economy: Shaping a Circular Economy together

Natural materials such as dog hair, banana leaves or seaweed are organic and sustainable – and already highly functional and versatile thanks to innovative technologies: Rethinking natural materials.

As partners of the “New European Bauhaus”, companies from the German Design Council network are researching how Europe can become climate-neutral by 2050. More about the New European Bauhaus.

More articles on the topics of sustainability and the circular economy.


Change – new horizons

Under the motto “Change – new horizons”, the German Brand and Design Congress 2021 will take place on 11 November. The topic of sustainability is the linchpin here: how can brands be managed successfully and sustainably in the future, both in terms of environmental protection and social responsibility and value orientation? Speakers from Planetly, Wilkhahn, Shiftphones, Future of Voice and many more will give talks on this topic.


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